In Wilsonville, Ontario you are quite likely to find owner, designer and builder Darren Heimbecker working diligently on the details of Whistling Gardens– completed after a five year labour-love quest. It has in fact been a 30-year dream that has finally become reality.
In late May, Whistling Gardens officially marked the beginning of a new horticultural chapter in the country. Considering it was a cornfield just a few years ago the progress has been phenomenal.
The 56-acre farm, featuring a historic 1881 fieldstone house is located just south of Brantford, Ontario in Wilsonville. Darren and his wife Wanda purchased the “just inside of Norfolk County” farm as Darren was looking to expand his nursery and find property suitable for vision. “She liked the historic house and I liked the land; it was a good match.”
From France to Russia, England to Italy, while in his 20’s, Darren traveled the world visiting different botanical gardens, gathering insightful knowledge knowing that someday he would eventually build a garden of his own to share with the public. Today, six major gardens include near replicas from the Palace of Versailles, a rock garden/alpine garden complete with a local fossil collection gathered from the farm and neighboring properties, to co-mingle with natural native plantings. All are tied together seamlessly with nearly 4 kilometers of easily accessible walking paths.
The plant collections are young but well on their way to becoming world class. Whistling Gardens has the world’s largest public conifer collection, representing 2,300 (and growing) species, hybrids and cultivars. As with all the plants in the collections, they are funded solely through the retail garden Centre and wholesale operation. Darren’s ability to propagate plants from cuttings and
graftings at the nursery make the whole enterprise possible. Many new plants or rare varieties in the
collection are the only specimens represented in Canada. Hundreds of trees and thousands of perennials have been planted throughout the grounds. It has become a living museum.
Also at Whistling Gardens is Canada’s only all stone fountain amphitheater. The design was inspired by a 1700’s water display that once existed at the Palace of Versailles. It has over 400 ft. of granite stone walls nestled into a hillside. Some 90 fountain jets using recycled water will be choreographed to music on the three 80 ft. staircases at designated times of the day, using the very latest in computer technology. Within the next year or two, he hopes to add LED lights for evening performances and a true Festival of Fountains experience.
Why has it taken so long to see a new public garden in Canada? The answer is simple: money. Consider how much landscape projects cost the typical homeowner. It can easily run into the 10’s of thousands of dollars. Multiply that by 18 acres. Last summer, several thousand feet of piping for electrical conduits and water lines for the fountains were installed at a huge cost, however it is something that most people will never see because everything is buried underground. Almost all botanical gardens
receive provincial and/or federal funding. Their benefactor and corporate support can be quite extensive, Darren explains. “Whistling Gardens looked into various government programs but very little is available to gardens that are privately run.”
It has been tough mentally, physically and financially to keep up with the demands of running the garden Centre and wholesale business. What has kept him going is his determination and the plant community’s support. Horticultural clubs from around Ontario and abroad, including a tourism delegation from Japan, organized by Norfolk County, have been very supportive and are excited to see something new and fresh in the gardening world. CP/WH